I’ve heard that the solvents commonly used in commercial dry cleaning

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

I’ve heard that the solvents commonly used in commercial dry cleaning are unhealthy and unsafe for the environment. Is this true?

Earl Eckstrom, Portland, OR

Studies show that perchloroethylene—the solvent used by the vast majority of dry cleaning establishments—is both hazardous to human health and injurious to the environment. For one, “perc,” as the solvent is commonly known in the industry, can have negative effects on the central nervous system. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, short-term exposure to perc can lead to headaches, nausea, dizziness and memory problems.

The environmental organization Greenpeace found that perc breaks down into toxic byproducts like phosgene, vinyl chloride, carbon tetrachloride and trichloroacetic acid (TCA). Dr. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says, “Phosgene is an extremely hazardous gas which evaporates and in closed spaces is potentially lethal. Vinyl chloride is a proven carcinogen and carbon tetrachloride is a known liver toxin.” And TCA has been linked to the extensive damage done to trees in the Black Forest in Germany, where it was used as an herbicide in the 1950s and 1960s.

A Danish study by Kolstad, Brandt and Rasmussen revealed that pregnant dry cleaning workers are twice as likely to have a miscarriage as pregnant women in other professions. And the University of California at Berkeley found that male dry cleaning workers have more sperm abnormalities and a significantly lower sperm count than men not employed by the industry.

Less toxic alternatives to perc are beginning to take hold. Comet Cleaners, which has 350 locations in 17 states and Mexico, replaced perc a decade ago with the more benign petroleum solvent, Exxon D-2000. Other cleaners have switched over to Chevron-Phillips” EcoSolv, a similar hydrocarbon-based alternative. Meanwhile, more than 200 cleaners—including Chicago”s Greener Cleaner—employ “wet cleaning,” a non-toxic, non-polluting alternative that uses biodegradable soap and water.

Perhaps the most promising non-toxic perc alternative is produced by GreenEarth Cleaning, which has patented its silicone-based dry cleaning solvent called Cyclic Silioxane. This product poses no threat to the environment or human health and simply degrades to sand, water and carbon dioxide. General Electric and Procter & Gamble have formed a joint venture with GreenEarth to help dry cleaners worldwide switch over to this more benign alternative. At greenearthcleaning.com, consumers can search an international database to find dry cleaners in their area that are using the new solvent.

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the use of perc under the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, states have been reticent to adopt phase-outs. The dry cleaning industry has mounted a strong lobby in favor of keeping perc legal, but consumer opposition is building, especially as more non-toxic alternatives are becoming available.

CONTACTS: Natural Resources Defense Council, (212) 727-2700, www.nrdc.org; Comet Cleaners, (817) 461-3555, www.cometcleaners.com; Green Earth Cleaning, (816) 926-0895, www.greenearthcleaning.com; EPA Perc Fact Sheet, www.epa.gov/opptintr/chemfact/f_perchl.txt .